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Tech startups, manufacturers help during crisis

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Many startups are struggling to survive through the coronavirus, but some well-established companies with significant funding and revenue streams are using their technologies to help governments, health-care professionals, and local communities in New Mexico and elsewhere confront the pandemic.

An image of RS21’s Urban Health Vulnerability Index. (Courtesy Rs21)

RS21

Albuquerque-based data analytics firm RS21 has built interactive online maps that show where the most-vulnerable populations are located in New Mexico’s three largest cities, and in urban centers throughout the U.S.

Users can tap on any city sector within the maps to pull up detailed community-specific information, including:

• number of residents over 65

• distance from the nearest medical facility

• percentage of population lacking health insurance

• incidence of chronic diseases in the area, including cancer, asthma, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, obesity and high blood pressure

Based on that data and more, the map produces an “urban health vulnerability index” for each city sector to show which areas are the most at-risk as the coronavirus spreads. That can help local governments, public health officials and community groups identify critical needs and better allocate resources to assist people, said RS21 President and CEO Charles Rath.

“We’re hopeful these tools can help save lives,” Rath said. “That’s why we built it.”

The maps are based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Census Bureau.

After the company rolled out maps for Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Santa Fe, it got calls from across the U.S. asking for more maps of other cities. In response, RS21 has created them now for dozens of other cities including major urban centers like New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago and San Francisco.

The initiative came from RS21’s team of data scientists, graphic interface designers and software developers who wanted to use company capabilities to put critical information at people’s fingertips, said communications manager Natalie Sommer.

“The maps focus on cities because that’s where the most data is available,” Sommer said. “We’ve made them publicly available for anybody to use.”

RS21 launched in 2014 to create “resilient solutions for the 21st century.” It specializes in packaging mounds of information into easily understandable, web-based platforms to allow decision-makers to rapidly analyze the root causes of issues.

To access the maps, go to covid.rs21.io.

Descartes Labs

Santa Fe-based data analytics firm Descartes Labs is providing near real-time information on population movement in states and targeted counties around the U.S. where travel and stay-at-home restrictions have been implemented.

A graphic created by Descartes Labs shows mobility has slowed in New Mexico. (Courtesy Descartes Labs)

The company, which launched in 2015, uses advanced image recognition software originally developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory that sifts through reams of data from satellites and other sources to rapidly analyze global trends in almost any field. It uses a cloud-based supercomputer to analyze that information and provide advanced insight into everything from energy and agriculture to weather patterns and large-scale industry operations across the globe.

Tracking population mobility can help state and local officials assess how well government restrictions on movement are working, determine if reduced mobility is helping to slow contagion, and provide critical information to adjust policies as needed, said Descartes Labs CEO Phil Fraher.

The company uses GPS-based mobile device data aggregated from thousands of phones to produce daily averages on movement compared with before mobility restrictions were put in place. No individual data is recorded, and the system only looks at county-level information to protect privacy.

“We won’t go below the county level so there are no privacy concerns,” Fraher told the Journal.

The data shows how much movement there is and how far people are traveling in different localities. That data can then be collated with infection rates to see if higher contagion levels correlate to greater movement, Fraher said.

“It can show how far people are traveling, whether they’re still moving around town, if they’re coming in and out of the state or in and out of the county,” Fraher said.

yellCast

Santa Fe-based yellCast, which created an online search platform and connection engine to link local consumers with local businesses, is preparing to launch an expanded platform that will allow neighbors and consumers to easily connect with one another to buy, sell and share things.

A screenshot shows how yellCast’s new neighborhood and community-level connection platform would work/look alongside the company’s existing platform, which connects local consumers with local businesses. (Courtesy Yellcast)

That could hook people up at the local level to help one another in emergencies like the coronavirus, said yellCast co-founder Bill Foster.

“The enhanced platform will go beyond linking buyers and sellers to connecting people with people,” Foster said. “Instead of asking in a search where you can buy toilet paper, you can maybe connect with a guy down the block who has excess toilet paper. Maybe that person needs hand sanitizer and can offer to trade.”

The technology and online infrastructure to roll out the new connection platform is already in place. The company is now working to make it more user friendly for people to easily post searches or offer things, said yellCast Marketing Director Mike Ault.

“We want to make it easy for inexperienced ad hoc sellers and consumers to use it to create listings without being a tech expert,” Ault said. “We want it to be instantaneous and simple.”

The company hopes to push the platform out within a couple of weeks.

The search-and-connect system builds on yellCast’s original concept of creating an online platform to strengthen local marketplaces, making it easier and more efficient for consumers to deal directly with area businesses without big national companies sidelining them when people do Google searches.

The company, which launched in 2016, has also built new technology that will allow people to simply point their smartphones at objects – including businesses, locations or things – to automatically and instantly produce information about the targeted object on the user’s phone.

Marpac

Albuquerque manufacturing firm Marpac is working with Sandia National Laboratories and Lovelace Health System to produce coronavirus-resistant face masks for health-care professionals that are equally as effective as standard N95 respiratory masks.

Marpac owner Jeff Alcalde, right, stands with Sierra Peaks GM Simon Goldfine inside their sister companies’ facility in Northeast Albuquerque earlier this year. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

The company is a specialized sewing manufacturer that makes medical accessories to stabilize secure breathing and feeding tubes, plus custom-sewn products for individual clients. It also makes sleep apnea accessories, including face masks.

N95 masks are designed to achieve a very close facial fit to insulate the wearer from face contamination by airborne particles and liquids. But with the pandemic rapidly spreading nationwide, those masks are in short supply and materials to make them are going to traditional mask-making companies.

Marpac is designing its own masks with alternative materials that Sandia is testing to assure their effectiveness, said Marpac owner Jeff Alcalde.

“We want to make a high-level mask with the equivalent filtration properties as an N95 mask,” Alcalde said. “Marpac is doing the design to make the masks comfortable and breathable using materials outside the traditional N95 supply chain. We’ve put together the filters and are sending them to Sandia for testing.”

The company already sent the first batch of masks to Sandia, and it’s now working with Lovelace to try them out and provide feedback on any needed alterations, Alcalde said.

Marpac employees normally work 10-hour shifts four days a week from Monday-Friday. But on March 27, it switched to a five-day work week to immediately ramp up face mask production, a schedule that will continue through April and beyond, if needed.

“We can make north of 5,000 masks per week based on a five-day workweek,” Alcalde said.

Lovelace will use the masks first, with supplies expanding to other local medical facilities if they want them. To increase production beyond 5,000 per week, the company is reaching out to other companies around the state to supply needed equipment, such as ultrasonic welding machines.

“It’s all about getting across the finish line now with a product that we know will protect health-care workers,” Alcalde said.

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